Flambeau Says It Has Restored Ladysmith

Associated Press
March 19, 2007    

WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) – A decade after digging a huge open pit in northwest Wisconsin to mine nearly 1.9 million tons of mostly copper ore, a mining company says the land has been restored to its natural state without environmental harm.

Flambeau Mining Co. has asked state regulators to declare that its restoration of the mine just south of Ladysmith was successfully completed, a change that would allow the company to lower the amount of a required reclamation bond by millions of dollars.

The Ladysmith mine on about 150 acres was the first metallic mine to open in the state in decades. The site attracted hundreds of protesters during various demonstrations to oppose it.

"All indications are that they've done substantially what they said they were going to do in the reclamation plan," said Philip Fauble, mining program coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Tom Wilson, a coordinator for Northern Thunder, a volunteer environmental and social action group that opposed the mine before it opened, disagreed.

"It is really too early to declare they have successfully reclaimed the mine," he said. "Nobody was saying that they couldn't grow a little prairie grass on top of that pile of rock."

Flambeau Mining, a subsidiary of Utah-based Kennecott Minerals Co. and British mining giant Rio Tinto, opened the mine in 1993 and hauled away ore containing copper, gold and silver until 1997, when reclamation began. The miners recovered 181,000 tons of the metals valued at more than $500 million, the company said. The state netted about $14 million from a mining tax.

Before the state issued permits to open the mine, the project was targeted by opponents and environmentalists who warned it would pollute the Flambeau River. Supporters said the mine would create jobs and show mining could be done without harming the environment.

Joel Dutenhoefer, city finance officer in Ladysmith, a community of about 4,000 people about 125 miles northeast of Minneapolis, said Monday barely a peep is spoken about the mine any more.

The city got nearly $1 million in taxes and direct payments from the mining company, he said.

"You would never know by looking at it that there was a mine there," Dutenhoefer said. "They did everything they could to make sure this mining operation would not have a negative stigma attached to it and they pretty well did that, at least at this junction."

Fauble said the DNR has issued no citations for violations of pollution standards at the mine.

But as recently as a year ago, some "elevated metallic concentrations" were discovered in runoff water and the soil in the area where the ore was loaded onto railroad cars for shipment to Canada for processing, Fauble said. The soil was dug up and replaced, he said.

Jana Murphy, Flambeau Mining's environmental manager, said the mine site, which includes the 32-acre open pit that reached a depth of 225 feet in places, is now a recreation and nature area for such things as hiking, bird watching and horseback riding.

"We are proud of our $20 million reclamation effort," she said. "The Flambeau mine project promised to follow or surpass Wisconsin's stringent metallic mine regulations, and that promise was kept."

If the DNR approves the so-called "certificate of completion," the security bond Flambeau Mining posted to protect taxpayers from having to pay for the reclamation work would be reduced from $11 million to $2 million, with the lower amount required for care for another 20 years, Fauble said.

If the certificate of completion is granted, the company must continue monitoring ground and surface waters to check for pollution for 40 years, he said. That requires a separate $1 million bond to protect state taxpayers from having to pay for the work.

Portions of the refilled open pit mine are still filling with water, Fauble said.

"We still haven't said that the groundwater is back exactly where it was prior to mining," Fauble said. "There is still some geo-chemical activity going on inside the old pit area that hasn't calmed down yet. It will take a while."

Northern Thunder will oppose issuing the certificate of completion, Wilson said. There is still too much risk of possible pollution to the Flambeau River and to ground water and some "very, very serious questions" about the long-term success of the work that's been done, he said.

Fauble said Flambeau Mining is responsible for the site "in perpetuity."